How a British union leader secretly lobbied for Israel against Lowkey
Held every year since the 1930’s, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival celebrates the six Dorset labourers who formed the first trade union in the United Kingdom in 1834. The festival commemorates their legacy in establishing union movements.
In a shocking move this year, the Trade Union Congress decided to dedicate the Sycamore tree that hosted their secret meetings to the Queen, the same power that deported the Tolpuddle martyrs to a British penal colony in Australia, for her platinum jubilee.
Nigel Costley, the South West regional secretary for the Trade Union Congress, justified the move stating that, “The monarchy played a very different role in the 1800s and this dedication will raise awareness of how far we have come.”
"Lowkey has established his voice as solidly anti-racist and strongly opposed to militarism. The GMB, on the other hand, is a well-documented supporter of the arms trade"
Another strange subtext to this year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival was the decision to disinvite British-Iraqi hip hop artist Lowkey from performing. Lowkey’s de-platforming occurred following a secret lobbying campaign by General Secretary of the GMB Union, Gary Smith, who sent a letter to Costley smearing Lowkey and leading to the rapper being disinvited.
Incidentally, the letter sent by Smith wrongly refers to Lowkey as Raheem, when in fact, his name is Kareem. One wonders why Smith would have such trouble with Arabic names. In the letter, he also falsely claims that Lowkey has "promoted conspiracy theories that allege an Israeli state plot to promote conflict between Ukraine and Russia” with no offer of evidence for this assertion.
Smith then proceeds to declare that the views (which he falsely attributes to Lowkey) "have nothing in common with the proud history of industrial struggle that we commemorate at Tolpuddle.”
Lowkey has established his voice as solidly anti-racist and strongly opposed to militarism. The GMB, on the other hand, is a well-documented supporter of the arms trade and has worked closely with GMB-funded Labour MP Ruth Smeeth to push this agenda in parliament.
The assassination of Palestinian journalist #ShireenAbuAkleh shocked the world. But it was far from an aberration in Israel's battle to contain the truth and control the narrative on its human rights abuses, @Lowkey0nline writes👇 https://t.co/ibnQeU8CF3— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) May 28, 2022
Ruth Smeeth was designated as a “strictly protect” informant for the US Embassy in cables revealed by Wikileaks. She was also the director of public affairs and campaigns at Britain’s largest Israel lobby group BICOM, which has a campaign currently pushing to remove Lowkey’s music from Spotify through its ‘We Believe In Israel’ project.
However, aside from these more structural aspects, it is important to examine the record of Gary Smith himself and identify the likely root of these allegations.
There is clear evidence that Gary Smith has a history of weaponising anti-Semitism smears against political opponents; as GMB leader in Scotland he was a key participant in the campaign against Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. He also led a campaign against Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the same issue.
Smith has also been publicly promoted by the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), a group entwined with the main settlement-building organisation in Palestine, known as the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This wouldn’t be the first time the CAA has got it wrong either. In 2017, the CAA had to remove a false claim about Lowkey from their website, after misquoting his Fire in the Booth performance on BBC Radio 1 in a failed attempt to de-platform him.
The group also published a dossier to prompt an investigation into anti-Semitism in the NUS, to prevent the new pro-Palestinian president-elect from taking her position. The dossier features Lowkey heavily. Considering these circumstances, it seems likely that the CAA is the source of Gary Smith's false allegations against Lowkey, contained in this secret lobbying letter.
The Chief Executive of the CAA is Gideon Falter, who simultaneously serves as the Vice Chair of the JNF UK. Initially, the director of communications for the CAA was Jonathan Sacerdoti who at the same time worked as director of the Zionist Federation. The CAA is also funded by Natan, an organisation which is chaired by Tony Felzen, a key supporter of Friends of the IDF.
The JNF UK is a key land grabbing and settlement building organisation in occupied Palestine and has stated that it collaborates on projects with “elite IDF units.” It has deep relationships with several Israeli organisations which provide direct passage into the Israeli army.
In 2005, JNF UK was investigated by the UK Charity Commission. The Charity Commission reported that "It is not open for the charity to support the State of Israel, since this does not itself denote a charitable purpose." The Charity Commission report continued to say that, "They should try to ensure that they refrain from indicating moral/political support for the state of Israel, rather explain the focus of their charitable activities.”
"For the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival to be used to de-platform pro-Palestinian artists, possibly based on a dodgy dossier provided by an organisation complicit in the settler colonial occupation of Palestine, is a travesty against its very foundations"
What’s more, JNF UK Honorary Treasurer Gary Mond was exposed to having made Islamophobic comments online. Earlier this year, JNF UK chair and former Israeli intelligence officer Samuel Hayek was also revealed to have made Islamophobic remarks, which led to the UK Charity Commission opening an investigation into the organisation on January 13th.
For the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival to be used to de-platform pro-Palestinian artists, possibly based on a dodgy dossier provided by an organisation complicit in the settler colonial occupation of Palestine, is a travesty against its very foundations.
There is a long tradition of solidarity with Palestine among British trade union movements, and the Trade Union Congress must not allow Israeli lobbyists to erode this history.
Sohaib Benessa is a British-born Moroccan writer based in London. His work focuses on social justice for marginalised groups within and without the UK, with specific attention to Africa and the Middle East.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.